Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Anthropology’

Calling Out the Real Evil

Monday, August 14th, 2017

The violence in Charlottesville has brought the reality and danger of racism once again to the front of America’s attention. Sane voices across our nation are denouncing the ugly white supremacists and neo-Nazis who precipitated the violence. Leaders of our Church have been unequivocal in deploring the hate that permeated the event. Such statements are important to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering from racism. A good example is the statement issued by our local Commission of Religious Leaders.  It is altogether right that all people of good will should say these things.

But, in a way, it’s easy to denounce racism as a grave sin, a blight on the history of our nation, a malign force that denigrates and devalues people every day that has led to countless deaths and injuries. Nobody who isn’t infected by the sin would disagree.

I’m going to annoy peoply by saying it, but a commonplace bare denunciation of racism as evil doesn’t really say enough — it’s a tautology, a circular statement that is equivalent to saying “a bad thing is bad”. And to make things worse, the news media wastes too much time comparing the strength of various statements against racism, which just gives people a chance to compete with each other in “virtue signaling”.

This issue is too serious. We have to call out the evil reality of what produces racism. The real enemy is not just racism, or any other -ism — it’s the ideology of identity. And we won’t be able to make any headway against racism until we pull this evil out in the open, discuss it plainly, and expose if for the diabolic lie that it is.

It’s natural for people to emphasize certain of their characteristics as they express their personality and values. That can be a good thing, especially if it fosters a sense of community and belonging and solidarity.

But the ideology of identity is the weaponization of the wrong-headed and reductive idea that a person is defined by one of their characteristics (like race, or sex, or sexual desire). It focuses people exclusively and excessively on their own desires and choices and self-image, and demands that others accept their personal identity definition at all costs regardless of its relationship with the truth. It impairs our ability to truly understand ourselves in all our complexity, and to seek out the common elements that unite us with others. It says to outsiders that we cannot conceivably understand each other, and labels anyone who dares to doubt or disagree or question as a “hater”.

As a result, it splinters society into a myriad of mutually exclusive and incomprehensible fragments that are in perpetual conflict of all against all. It leads to the ugly identity politics that we are mired in right now, where the population is broken into factions and sects.

This dangerous attitude is fundamentally an anthropological error — a misconception of the nature of the human person. It denies the importance — and even the reality — of our common humanity.

Let’s go back to the seminal document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, for the essential truths:

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.

That is the fundamental truth that we have to keep talking about, because we obviously can’t take it for granted that everyone understands or agrees. We need to make the argument very plainly that every person is a member of one family and is a child of God. We have to hold to the truth that people aren’t defined by particular characteristics, but that their real identity and dignity transcend any one factor.

By making that key point, we will be able to argue very clearly that racism isn’t bad just because we don’t like it and it’s socially unacceptable. It’s bad because it’s irrational and idiotic and a lie to consider a person to be inferior based on their skin color or their nation of origin or ancestry. And, just like all other kinds of identity ideology, it is reductive and dehumanizing to look at people as a mere exemplar of a particular characteristic.

If you want an example of how to confront these kinds of virulent falsehoods head-on, read Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or Abraham Lincoln’s arguments against slavery or Frederick Douglass’ orations. They go right to the root of the argument, and don’t shy away from arguing first principles. We need to emulate them.

As I said, it’s laudable and important to deplore the evils that happened at Charlottesville. But we are in a desperate fight over the nature of the human person and the inherent dignity of every child of God. We can’t rely on facile denunciations. We must make the argument against the evil of identity ideology, or we will never convince anyone of the wrong of racism.

Our Challenge on Earth Day

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Today is the annual “Earth Day”, a secular holiday of sorts that encourages people to pay attention to the state of our world’s environment and particularly the threats to the beauty and purity of our material world. That’s all well and good and we should certainly do so.

But Earth Day also gives us an opportunity to put enviromentalism in its broader context, informed by a Christian understanding of the nature of the human person and of the gift of creation. To do this, it’s worth revisiting Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si.

When it was released, the secular media generally portrayed Laudato Si as the Pope’s “climate change encyclical”. Some people reacted to the letter with horror because it dared to cast doubt upon the modern worship of mammon in the form of “captialism”. But both of these reactions miss the point. Laudato Si challenges us to a personal and social conversion of heart, so that we can return to God’s original plan for humanity and all creation.

This central purpose of the encyclical is evident right at the beginning, when the Holy Father points out that the harms to our material world come from the sin in our hearts.  And he notes that we have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are an intrinsic part of creation, formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and that our lives depend on the material bounty of the Earth.  This is evident to us, not just from divine revelation, but by a reasoned contemplation of nature itself.

The theme of returning to God’s original plan is woven throughout the encyclical. Again and again, Pope Francis comes back to the idea that the troubles of our world are the result of our sinfulness, particularly our loss of a sense of the universal moral law and the abuse of our freedom. We see this in the underlying causes of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation —  a utilitarian and technocratic way of treating each other and the absence of solidarity between people.

All these problems rest on a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person.  Pope Francis sees clearly that our modern world considers man as a being whose entire existence is determined by self-interested material needs and pursuits, without regard to his relationships with others. When one looks at the modern domination of our society by the ethos of economic libertarianism and  hedonistic autonomy, the diagnosis certainly rings true. The Holy Father calls this an “excessive anthropocentrism”, a failure to understand our true place in this world, particularly our interlocking relationships with creation, or fellow beings, and our Creator.

It is in his discussion of these relationships that we see most clearly the Holy Father’s true Christian anthropology, and his perception that God’s original plan is the antidote to our modern world’s problems. In Chapter Two of the encyclical, Pope Francis sets forth an extended exegesis of the Scriptural passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation. The key passage, paragraph 66, is so important that it needs to be quoted in its entirety:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.  According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

It is certainly important to pay close attention to the Holy Father’s comments on the specific environmental depradations that have been inflicted upon creation, particularly in the developing nations. But the true significance of Laudato Si can be found in its call to recapture the remnants of God’s original plan for humanity, so that we can live in peace and harmony with each other and with all creation. This has to begin, as the Holy Father said in last year’s Message on World Day of Prayer for Creation, with “a serious examination of conscience and moved by sincere repentance,”  so that “we can confess our sins against the Creator, against creation, and against our brothers and sisters”.

Today, the Holy Father got right to the heart of the matter, in the prayer he sent out on his Twitter feed:

Lord, bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

May this be our prayer on Earth Day, and throughout the year.